Solidarity With Trans Lives is How We Fight the Right

Conservatives are uniting behind a neofascist project and trans people are a prime target for violence. The Church can't settle for anything less than costly solidarity with trans lives, claiming political conflict as a necessary consequence of Christian love.

It is now abundantly clear that a major priority of the Republican Party is the decimation of the hard-won rights that have been achieved by the reproductive, antiracist, labor, and LGBTQ movements. Across the country, GOP legislators, circuit and Supreme Court justices, reactionary billionaires, and grassroots conservatives have combined to form a powerful, slash-and-burn movement that may entrench antidemocratic conservative rule for decades to come. The conservative assault on LGBTQ people is particularly alarming. Over the last two years, the American right has regrouped around its well-rehearsed tactic of framing queer people as menacing threats to children and “the family”—groups that conservatives have always narrowly defined in terms of patriarchy and white identity. This time, the chosen enemy is not gay couples seeking to marry (at least not yet), but trans people, especially trans youth who want to live openly and safely in their gender. 

In 2022 alone, Republican legislators have introduced over 240 aggressively anti-LGBTQ bills in statehouses across the country, many of them focused directly on trans youth. Proposed legislation ranges from banning gender-affirming care for trans children to mandatory de-transitions to forbidding trans kids and their families to leave their state for medical care. Texas Governor Abbot’s order in March to investigate trans care as “child abuse” was a salvo for anti-trans legislation, and numerous states have followed suit. Last week, Alabama barely avoided a felony ban that would criminalize supportive doctors and parents with prison time and forcefully detransition trans youth. 

Meanwhile, an increasingly Trumpist conservative base has mobilized relentlessly to stigmatize queer and trans people, aiming for nothing less than their disappearance from public life. Over the last few months, they have demanded the removal of books with trans characters from public schools, tried to ban trans youth from participating in sports, defended public expressions of transphobia, depicted transness as a dangerous social contagion, harassed trans people and their families, lobbied against access to best-practice medical care, and slandered affirming parents as child abusers. 

The radicalization of both the Republican Party and its base into a blatantly anti-democratic, white supremacist, and theocratic political bloc is certainly disturbing, but it is not unprecedented. The history of the GOP clearly demonstrates that antidemocratic maneuveringracism, and Christian nationalism are not bugs of US conservatism, but core features. As trans historian Jules Gill-Peterson wrote for Jewish Currents, recent anti-trans bills are “emblems of a broader conservative, Christian political project” and should be viewed “not as sudden and arbitrary aberrations but instead as developments in a decades-long process… in which sex panics and anti-abortion politics converged with anti-Blackness—from the war on drugs, the dismantling of welfare, and the expansion of mass incarceration—to rewrite the conservative playbook.” 

The methodical targeting of populations that do not conform to a white, heterosexual, Christian ideal has culminated in a coordinated assault on trans people that is rapidly gaining momentum. And despite widespread public opposition to anti-trans laws, Democrats have done little to boldly contest the GOP’s rollback of trans rights and its shameless stigmatizing of queer life. All people of conscience, and especially Christians on the left, must come to terms with this threat. It is imperative that we refuse passive denial and inert outrage, and instead throw ourselves into effective, organized action. 

From Gay Liberation to Rainbow Capitalism

When North Carolina passed its infamous 2016 bill to bar transgender people from bathrooms, numerous corporations and high-profile organizations rushed to boycott the state, ultimately costing the state’s economy an estimated $3.76 billion in lost business. Yet in 2021, a record-breaking year for anti-trans legislation in which dozens of states introduced and passed transphobic laws, corporations hardly flinched—a foreboding indication of a shift in both consumer sentiment and right-wing political power over the past five years. Meanwhile, the infrastructure of the mainstream LGBTQ advocacy movement, built during the fight for marriage equality and powered by gay leadership, has failed to organize a large-scale political response to this aggressive right-wing mobilization. In February 2021, Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson, a former high-profile target of homophobic animus, flippantly remarked, “we’ve won,” in response to criticism about inviting an openly homophobic preacher to the Washington National Cathedral pulpit.

These examples are indicative of a widespread cultural (mis)perception, namely that the post-Obergefell US and the post-Robinson mainline churches are safe places for all queer people. Nothing could be further from the truth. The acceptance of some queer people into mainstream culture, the waning of organized LGBTQ movements, and renewed assaults on trans people are not unrelated. Under capitalism, the rights achieved by oppressed people are always under threat of being co-opted and remarketed as mere lifestyle choices and cultural identities—and leaving them vulnerable to reactionary backlash at the state and grassroots level. Organized solidarity and coalitional activism are necessary to fight capitalist co-optation and reactionary backlash.

It was exactly this insight that sparked the gay liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s. This militant network of LGBTQ activists struggled not just for gay rights but for an end to systems of oppressive power like capitalism, sexism, militarism and racism. Taking inspiration from anticolonial movements and socialist organizations like the Black Panther Party, the early gay liberation movement fought not merely for inclusion into mainstream capitalist society, but for a radical rethinking of sex, gender, bodies, and labor. One of the movement’s organizations, the Gay Liberation Front, boldly staked out a politics of self-emancipation in their 1971 manifesto: “We do not intend to ask for anything. We intend to stand firm and assert our basic rights.” 

In a 1970 issue of the Gay Liberation Front’s periodical, Come Out!, they laid out a set of demands that linked the sexual rights of gays and lesbians to revolutionary struggle with other oppressed groups. Among their demands was “the right to free physiological change and modification of sex on demand,” as well as “every child’s right to develop in a non-sexist, non-oppressive atmosphere.” Also included were “that all gay people share equally the labor and products of society” and “the full participation of gays in the people’s revolutionary army.” Participants in the early gay liberation movement understood that true queer liberation required freedom from all forced gender conformity and from alienated labor, as well as all forms of ruling class exploitation. Crucially, this freedom could not be won without internationalist anti-capitalist solidarity. “The struggles of the peoples of the world are our fight as well,” declared the Gay Liberation Front’s “Third World Gay Revolution. “Their victories and our victories are theirs. Our freedom will come only with their freedom.” 

The lackluster response to recent transphobic aggression stands in stark contrast to the radical resistance mounted by early gay liberation movements and reflects the impotence of a politics focused on assimilation into an oppressive status quo. While the cause for gay rights began in militant, anti-capitalist struggle, by the 1980s LGBTQ activism merged with liberal multiculturalism and settled for rainbow capitalism. Rather than leaning into a politics that understands all forms of oppression as inextricably connected, LGBTQ activism became focused largely on securing recognition by middle-class cultural institutions and the state. When the gay rights movement left behind the radical class politics of the Gay Liberation Front and ACT UP for the liberal corporate lobbying of the Human Rights Campaign, it also left behind the LGBTQ people most vulnerable to poverty, incarceration, and other forms of violence: trans people and queer people of color. 

While the immediate threat to trans youth and their families is acute, we must understand that transphobic legislation is part of a larger goal: the establishment of an authoritarian Christian state wedded to a capitalist system that dispossesses entire classes of people of resources, and ultimately, life. Increasingly, right-wing factions are dropping pretenses of democracy and uniting behind a neofascist project to strengthen white, Christian, patriarchal supremacy—a project that pits the faithful against a corrupting “other” that must be eliminated. As a strategy, neofascist rhetoric targets the marginalized populations that are most despicable to its base—and least likely to garner sympathy from the centrist mainstream.

In other words, the accelerating campaigns against trans youth, reproductive justice, critical race theory, access to the vote, and the working poor are coordinated, not coincidental. Each campaign isolates clear targets for white conservative resentment, moves our public discourse a step further to the right, and expands opportunities for right-wing takeover. Meanwhile, Democratic politicians, the corporate media, and liberals respond tepidly to each attack, treating them as isolated departures from mainstream conservatism. By failing to name the right’s overarching supremacist project and endlessly obfuscating the role of corporate interests, they further enable the right’s neofascist impulses.

The Church as a Social Body of Solidarity

Understanding the true faultlines of political division is a perennial problem for the American church. Its theology often mystifies the sources of division and reinforces ruling class ideas by spiritualizing its mission. Torture and Eucharist, William Cavanaugh’s book on the church under the Pinochet regime in Chile, studies just this problem. In the book, he identifies a prime characteristic of totalitarian states: they seek to destroy all collective social bodies that threaten to undermine their rule, and restructure society around bare, atomized individuals. This has major implications for Christians who want to resist the current neofascist quest for total power. Cavanaugh argues that the church can only mount an effective resistance against fascism by understanding itself as a social body, rather than as an apolitical, spiritual institution that concerns itself only with the “soul of society.” In order to realize its mission of resistance, the church must be a community of real bodies, acting together as a material expression of the body of Christ in our society. 

Concretely, this means that the church must form a deliberate community of solidarity with trans youth and their families. A refusal of this solidarity will sideline the church as a mere mystical body, just as Cavanaugh says it became in Pinochet’s Chile, “hovering over the divisions of the ‘temporal plane,’ uniting all in soul, if not in body.” The question for the church must not be “how do we form willing, individual Christians into allies of the LGBTQ community?” but instead “how do we become the broken body of Christ given up in acts of solidarity?” Organizing this kind of communal action poses an ecclesiological challenge to oppression, rather than disengaged moral guidance. When the church acts as a body, Christ himself is acting.

Insisting that the church must act as a social body in solidarity with the oppressed will court polarization and conflict. Too often Christians hesitate on moral and political clarity when it forces us into conflict. But as Cavanaugh notes, this “hovering over divisions” is exactly what prevented the church from acting against fascism in Chile. The history of the church in the U.S. is also plagued with the failure to enact a social mission of solidarity. Martin Luther King Jr’s searing criticism of the “white moderate” indicted a complacent, white, middle-class Christianity that failed to confront Black oppression, preferring instead “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” The perpetual challenge to our churches is to insist unflinchingly upon solidarity, to recognize with the prophet Jeremiah that it is not God’s desire to call for peace where there is no true peace (Jeremiah 8:11).

This kind of solidarity calls us to claim conflict as the property of our community, as sociologist Nils Christie puts it, and seek to engage rightly and compassionately in the conflicts that arise from solidarity—not to avoid or paper over those conflicts. Faced with open war against trans existence, many Christian leaders will breathlessly invoke “unity” and “dialogue” rather than clearly name the immediate dangers to LGBTQ people. They will tell us that their refusal to take a side means they couldn’t possibly be implicated in extremism.  But a violent aggressor who is already in motion doesn’t need the approval of bystanders, only their inertia. Christians who invoke love and unity now to avoid naming and confronting right-wing authoritarianism are appealing to an ideology of love and unity that does nothing to prevent the ongoing violence against trans people. As the liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez insisted, true Christian love is inherently in conflict with the instigators and systems of injustice. “To love all [people] does not mean avoiding confrontations; it does not mean preserving a fictitious harmony. Universal love is that which in solidarity with the oppressed seeks also to liberate the oppressors from their own power, from their ambition, and from their selfishness.” 

The love, unity, and dignity that the church confesses cannot find real, material expression in the world without a decision to fight alongside the oppressed. For instance, theological affirmations that trans people are made in the image of God are certainly true, but if they fail to challenge the conservative insistence that gender conformity is a divine mandate, they do little to prevent the material harms faced by trans people. Christians must articulate a theology of gender liberation as a gift of the gospel—a truth that the New Testament begins to explore but which we must continue to work out in our own time. That God loves trans people, few anti-trans Christians will deny. That Jesus stands in solidarity with trans people, and against their religious and political oppressors, is where Christian leftists must make their stand.

Solidarity requires that we translate our general values—our desire to love, protect, and support the LGBTQ community—into specific actions sufficient to the threats we face now. Two challenges arise from this. First, we must describe our Christian values in clear, political terms in order to be helpful to movements for LGBTQ justice. This means moving beyond the generic call to love and insisting clearly that the manner of our love at this moment requires resistance—in particular, resistance against the current authoritarian right and any attempt to downplay their threat. Second, we must move from values to strategic action. We have to find ways to organize and mobilize our churches beyond voting or denouncing anti-trans legislation.

Acts of solidarity might begin with clergy, who are mandated reporters by law, making a clear statement of their intention to publicly disobey any laws requiring them to report trans youth. (And indeed, some bishops and clergy have made such a statement of intention). Gathering our congregations to occupy and protest at legislative buildings, directing church money to funds that protect trans and queer youth, and designating our church buildings and facilities as sanctuary spaces are other possible avenues. The current crisis involving family regulation in Texas should lead the church to a more critical analysis of the potential problems with mandatory reporting laws. Further, civil disobedience to state guidelines and laws should be matched with material support for affected or at-risk families. Churches should consider how they can—as a congregation or community—develop real relationships of mutual aid with affected individuals and families. If we are attentive, small commitments of solidarity like these can lead us to much bigger ones

Those who spearhead these conversations in their Christian communities, whether as leaders or congregants, will need to prepare for internal pushback and external harassment for their public stance on protecting trans lives. They should also take heart that a clear stance does not create divisions, but merely brings existing ones to the surface. To call the church to abandon its comfortable passivity and become converted to the cause of the oppressed is to join the company of the prophets and of Christ himself.

As Bryan Stevenson reminds us, proximity is what must guide our commitment to solidarity. Organizing the church begins with asking what is needed, listening carefully, and then committing to providing it. The act of committing to such countercultural care helps build the church into the very body of Christ, capable of mounting resistance, alongside so many others, to the oppression and rising authoritarianism we now face.

Luke Melonakos-Harrison is an MDiv student at Yale University, a tenant union organizer with the Democratic Socialists of America, a Bible nerd, and an aspiring Methodist pastor. He writes and teaches on liberationist Christianity, resistance to white Christian supremacy, and building a mass movement for democratic socialism.

Hannah Bowman is a graduate student in religious studies at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles, a literary agent, and a prison abolitionist. She is the founder and director of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons, and writes and teaches on the Christian theology supporting abolition.

Photo credit: Oriel Frankie Ashcroft via Pexels


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